Theatre Review: Off The Endz by Bola Agbaje

OFF THE ENDZ by Agbaje
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Award-winning playwright Bola Agbaje follows the acclaimed Detaining Justice with her latest piece Off the Endz; yet another critique of contemporary British society.  David (Ashley Walters of So Solid Crew, Hustle and Small Island fame) is fresh out of prison – again – and calls on pretty old flame Sharon (Lorraine Burroughs) and childhood friend Kojo (Daniel Francis) – now themselves an item – for help.

Sharon is a nurse and Kojo works a well paid 9-5.  They seem to be living the dream like any other would-be middle class young couple; baby on the way, multiple credit cards, expensive car, an eye on the property market… and waist-deep in debt. Sharon, in a naive attempt to set David on the straight and narrow suggests he comes to live with her and Kojo until he gets back on his feet.

However David sees his two old friends’ relatively respectable existence as too slow and arduous a journey to achieve what he ultimately wants out of life – to get rich as quickly as possible.  Sharon gets more and more exasperated with David’s immature ways and recidivism.  However Kojo’s protests against his friend’s behaviour become more half-hearted as financial pressure mounts up, temptation comes a-knocking and David’s negative influence slowly but surely starts to take hold.

There’s something very familiar about this set-up and herein lies the problem with Off the Endz.  The sumptuous stage design by Ultz (Boy Blue’s ‘Pied Piper’ being amongst his credits) and Ashley Walters’ commendable performance can only distract so much from the highly derivative, slightly superficial nature of the play.  It is one thing to re-hash well-worn ideas and quite another to present the discourse in a novel and refreshing manner. The latter is a tough task but it can be done;  Michael Bhim’s 2007 tour de force Pure Gold covering similar themes to that in Off The Endz accomplished it in an altogether sophisticated and affecting way.  Unfortunately if Off the Endz embarked on a similar mission then it doesn’t truly succeed. Much of Agbaje’s script is loaded with cliché and heavy-handed aphorisms.   It’s not too long before cliché’s obtrusive cousin, Mr Stereotype, comes along to rain on the rest of the parade.

There are some holes and inconsistencies that are just too hard to swallow for a piece that seeks to be as gritty as Off the Endz.  For instance there’s a rather implausible plot device in which Kojo loses his job and Sharon fails to notice despite him hanging around the flat at odd hours and his evasive response and shifty expression when asked the reason. At times, gimmick appears to be rearing its ugly head too.  There’s the brief but gratuitous nude scene where David goes full frontal and the few occasions when Kojo parades around the flat nonchalantly showing off his pecs.  I have a theory that 99% of nudity in art is pointless sensationalism and this is no exception.  The aforementioned scene involving Walters’ tight behind certainly got its whoops and whistles-it took a while for the audience to settle down.  Yet it added nothing to the play except needless distraction.

OFF THE ENDZ by Agbaje
Walters’ star quality aside, the performances often teeter dangerously on the edge of melodrama.  There is an exceptional comic turn by a gang of pre-pubescent thugs (Brandon Benoit-Joyce, Omar Brown, Thomas Eghator and Réné Gray) who all but steal the limelight from their fellow adult cast members for the short time they’re on stage.  There are plenty of laughs to be had throughout the duration of the piece notwithstanding the seriousness of the issues at hand.  Yet even amongst the comedy gems, some of the jokes have a tired and unimaginative feel to them.

Off The Endz is certainly an entertaining night out at the theatre – much of this could be put down to the impressive set and Walters very convincing portrayal of David, perhaps drawing from his own life experience to give the role its added authenticity.  Nevertheless, in regards to bringing fresh insight to an old tale, Off The Endz doesn’t quite hit the target.

–Tola Ositelu

Photo by Johan Persson

Off The Endz by Bola Agbaje runs at the Royal Court Theatre, London until 13th March 2010.
Visit www.royalcourttheatre.com for tickets and further information.